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Richard Muller’s Non-Conversion to Anthropogenic Global Warming

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For most people who believe that scientists are best able to speak on scientific matters, the global warming debate was pretty much over 20 years ago. Except for a few skeptics, anthropogenic global warming (AGW) was and is accepted as fact in the scientific community. It’s interesting to note that in the political world as well, AGW was a bipartisan issue; even John McCain vowed to fight global warming in his 2008 campaign.

But something happened along the way. All of a sudden, it became uncool in the conservative community as a whole to admit that AGW was real. The conservatives gave wildly different reasons for the proposition that 98 percent of climatologists were wrong about AGW: some said that there was indeed a global conspiracy, others said that scientists were being forced by peer pressure to accept the majority scientific view, still others claimed that AGW couldn’t be real because the Bible didn’t say it would happen, and then there were a few who accepted that global warming was happening, but that it just wasn’t proven to their satisfaction that humans were the cause. Interestingly enough, this tectonic shift in thinking among conservatives happened at about the same time that they began to reject definitively conservative ideas like cap-and-trade and the individual mandate, but the conservatives’ current practice of vehement rejection of any position where liberals agree with them is probably a story for another time.

Now Richard Muller is a very bright fellow. His Wikipedia page states that he is “an American professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley. He is also a faculty senior scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory” and that he won an award from the National Science Foundation “for highly original and innovative research which has led to important discoveries and inventions in diverse areas of physics, including astrophysics, radioisotope dating, and optics.” On July 28th, he penned an op-ed in The New York Times titled, “The Conversion of a Climate-Change Skeptic”, and it hit the liberal side of the media by storm; not a single liberal site to my knowledge failed to trumpet his “conversion.”

Note the quotation marks on that last word. The very next day, posted a quick blurb about his op-ed with a link to this rather unflattering page about the esteemed scientist. In fact, the gist of that last reference is that Richard Muller was never a true AGW skeptic; and they are right. The main reason that Richard Muller was seen as such an AGW-denial bugaboo was this 2004 article where he showed what he felt were problems with the “hockey stick” graph that seemed to describe AGW. But in that same article wherein he attacked the controversial graph, he also said:

If you are concerned about global warming (as I am) and think that human-created carbon dioxide may contribute (as I do), then you still should agree that we are much better off having broken the hockey stick. Misinformation can do real harm, because it distorts predictions. Suppose, for example, that future measurements in the years 2005-2015 show a clear and distinct global cooling trend (It could happen). If we mistakenly took the hockey stick seriously–that is, if we believed that natural fluctuations in climate are small–then we might conclude (mistakenly) that the cooling could not be just a random fluctuation on top of a long-term warming trend, since according to the hockey stick, such fluctuations are negligible. And that might lead in turn to the mistaken conclusion that global warming predictions are a lot of hooey. If, on the other hand, we reject the hockey stick, and recognize that natural fluctuations can be large, then we will not be misled by a few years of random cooling. A phony hockey stick is more dangerous than a broken one–if we know it is broken. It is our responsibility as scientists to look at the data in an unbiased way, and draw whatever conclusions follow. When we discover a mistake, we admit it, learn from it, and perhaps discover once again the value of caution.

About Glenn Contrarian

White. Male. Raised in the deepest of the Deep South. Retired Navy. Strong Christian. Proud Liberal. Thus, Contrarian!
  • Dr Dreadful

    I, of course, like so many others, am a String Theory skeptic.

    It’s said that there are only perhaps two or three people in the entire world who truly understand string theory, so that shouldn’t be surprising. Like most of what happens in the quantum universe, it is rather mindblowing for we lumbering macro entities who don’t operate on that level on a day to day basis.

    It kinda sorta maybe possibly theoretically starts to make a teeny tiny bit more sense if you stop thinking of space in terms of, well, space.

  • Dr Dreadful

    3. Climate change is a natural part of the planetary atmosphere and we are currently in a warming phase. If this is true, and I tend to think it is

    While it’s true that the climate does change without human intervention, it doesn’t change spontaneously, and this is a point that AGW “sceptics” usually overlook.

    Natural causes of climate change are numerous and may include such factors as volcanic activity, solar activity, tectonic movement, large-scale releases of greenhouse gases like water vapour and methane, changes in the Earth’s axial tilt, and the whereabouts of the Solar System in its orbit around the galactic centre.

    However, none of these appears to be a significant contributor to the current warming episode. Volcanism has not been at an atypically high level in recent centuries, solar activity is low, the continents are changing positions orders of magnitude more slowly than the climate is warming, etc. The only phenomenon that is consistent with and accounts for what we are seeing now is the large-scale release of fossil CO2 from industrial era mineral combustion.

  • Igor

    @51-DrD: I’m not impressed when you claim that only a few people could comprehend string theory. Back in the 50s J.Presper Ekhert claimed that binary arithmetic was so difficult that only a half-dozen people would be able to program computers. So IBM and UNIVAC set about to design and build computers that would do decimal arithmetic instead. The result was the IBM 560 bi-quinary machine and the UNIVAC XS-3 machine. At great expense. All unnecessary: millions of ordinary humans understand binary arithmetic and use it daily.

    I know it sounds romantic and mysterious to suppose such things, but that makes it pretty useless to science, which seeks to explain, not entertain.

  • Dr Dreadful

    Not my claim, Igor. I saw it made by an eminent quantum physicist (can’t remember who, but it might have been Hawking), who didn’t count himself among that number.

    Ekhert was an idiot to make that prediction, since a choice between two states is one of the simplest concepts humans know.

    String theory is not by any stretch of the imagination a simple concept, and ascends into esoteric areas of mathematics that are not at all intuitive, so citing an early computer pioneer’s spectacularly unimaginative assessment of binary arithmetic is a poor comparison.

  • Igor

    Mitch Jeserich had an excellent interview with Muller today on KPFA: Muller.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Igor –

    Like you, I’m a string theory skeptic. It seems to me that every time the fabric of spacetime throws the string theorists a loop, they add something else to the theory. Personally, I like MOND – Modified Newtonian Dynamics – better, but that doesn’t feel quite right, either.

    But I’m certainly neither educated nor well-read enough to speak with any authority on the subject, so I’ll wait and watch.

  • Dr Dreadful

    MOND might work pretty well as far as predicting the movements of very large and distant bodies is concerned, but saying you “prefer” it to string theory is a bit nonsensical, since it doesn’t describe the same class of phenomena. It’s a bit like saying you’re skeptical of weathering but like plate tectonics.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Which just to goes I don’t know what the heck I’m talking about, doesn’t it? Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to get back to my Monty Python marathon.

    Every once in a while I take an extra dose of stupid pills – I was once very conservative, you know….